I don’t know my neighbors

“Do you smell that?” I asked my husband.

He sniffed the air. “I guess so. Smells like smoke.”

Peter wasn’t smoking at the time, so I knew it wasn’t cigarette smoke I detected. We were standing in the backyard to escape the stuffy duplex that we rented. In contrast to the warmth inside, there was a slight chill in the outside air that surprised me on the early July evening.

In the dark, my sense of smell was heightened. “I think I smell smoke,” I stated. I looked over at our neighbors’ house. I noticed a flickering light behind the attic window’s curtain. I also noticed a red glow.

“Look,” I instructed Peter. “Do you think there’s a fire?”

“I don’t know,” he said.

I’d recently worked at a Red Cross chapter. While the organization is known for providing disaster relief to those affected by large natural disasters like hurricanes and tornadoes, the majority of the local chapter’s assistance goes to families displaced by house fires. That weighed on my mind as I observed the pulsing light in that upstairs room.

“Should I call 911?” I asked.

“It’s up to you,” was Peter’s response.

I had no idea if the neighbors were home. The house was occupied by an older couple and someone I presumed to be their adult son.

I pulled out my phone and made the call.

We moved to the front yard to wait. Within moments I heard the sirens. The station was only six blocks away. The sound crescendoed and then I saw the flashing lights.

Two fire trucks pulled onto our street and came to a stop in front of our neighbors’ house. Residents along the block began pouring out onto the sidewalks to see what was happening.

Two firefighters stepped onto my neighbors’ porch and knocked. Meanwhile, the fire chief’s SUV pulled up to the curb behind the second engine. He came over to me. He had my name and address from the 911 call, but he asked me to confirm. I glanced over his shoulder at the neighbors’ house. The woman who lived there, obviously clad for bed, had opened the door. I focused my attention back on the chief to answer his questions about my call.

I didn’t see what happened next, but a fireman approached me a few minutes later.

“The smoke was probably from an outdoor fire pit. I recognize the smell,” he informed me. “One of the residents of the home is watching TV upstairs, and he has a strobe light. He’s going to turn the light off,” he went on.

I apologized to the chief and the firefighter. “I’m so sorry to have made you come out,” I said. “I’m so, so sorry,” I said again.

“Better safe than sorry,” the chief assured me.

After the trucks pulled away and the gawkers dispersed, I walked into the house. I was shaking. I began to cry.

I had made a mistake: my cheeks were the only thing on fire.

But calling to report a possible blaze had not been my greatest blunder.

The shameful mistake was not going to the neighbor’s house myself, not knocking on the door to check if they were home. My mistake was preserving anonymity and relying on professionals to save people whose names I didn’t know.

I had lived beside them for over a year.

From that point on, I couldn’t make eye contact with them knowing what I had done. And when we finally moved away six years later, I still didn’t know their names.

55 thoughts on “I don’t know my neighbors

  1. We know our neighbors very well. Our girls play with their kids (all sides and across the street) and we’ve even gone trick or treating with the family down the street. We got lucky. I know this is the exception not the rule.

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    1. We were a little friendlier with the family on the other side, especially after Philip was born, but I never learned their names either. And I never learned the names of the neighbors of the next house we rented. But now that we own a house, I’m happy to report we’ve introduced ourselves to a few of the neighbors.

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  2. We lived in a cul de sac in the City and were cordial with the neighbors, but didn’t really know them either. It’s just the way of the world now, particularly in many urban areas. We moved to a cul de sac in the burbs and know all of our immediate neighbors very well. It’s good and bad I guess. You probably could have knocked, but you still did the right thing, and that’s doing something instead of nothing.

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  3. Ugh, that’s tough. I’ve been in my house for a year, and at least know the neighbors well enough that I’d knock on their door if I thought their house was on fire. Probably. Unless I was really tired.

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    1. We’ve already had more people introduce themselves in our new neighbor in one month than we’ve had in the many years we’ve lived in our rental properties. Of course, the HOA even publishes a directory of residents, so I guess the culture is different here.

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  4. I lived in a neighborhood about five years ago that homes built with detached garages off of alleyways behind the homes. It was intentionally designed that way to create the possibility of meeting your neighbors. No one could drive their car into their garage and just enter their home. They had to walk outside. The children played in the alley, too. We got to know all of our nearby neighbors.

    When I lived in the city, I got to know a lot of my neighbors, too. I think it has to do with the neighborhood’s personality.

    Now, I am in a suburb. I have been here four months, and I only know one neighbor. Every place is different.

    You absolutely did reach out to help your neighbors when you thought they were in danger. You should not feel any shame.

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  5. I have one neighbor who is fabulous — she always says hi when she walks by and somehow she manages to know everyone by name. I’m more like you, and I almost never knock on the neighbor’s doors unless I’m invited over. I think that you did just the right thing with calling the firemen, and I bet the neighbors were grateful that you were looking out for their safety. It’s funny how quick we can be to fault ourselves.

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    1. In the neighborhood where we lived right before we bought our house there was a woman a couple of blocks away whose house we passed on our walks. Her name was Cathy. She introduced herself, her husband and her dogs, and made sure she knew my name, Philip’s and the dog’s. Heck, she didn’t even know where we lived until a few months before we moved, but since we walked by her house so much she made the effort to greet us by name and chat.

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  6. We moved into our house over two years ago and barely know our neighbors. There is an old couple next to us and all I know is the man’s name is Ed. I don’t know what I would do if I was in the same situation you were in, but I don’t think you should feel ashamed. You thought there was an emergency and you called the right people for the job. A lot of people would have just ignored it completely.

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    1. I feel I have a bit of an excuse in our new neighborhood since the house to our right is a seasonal home and the owners are gone for the winter. I’m not sure if I’ll introduce myself when they return or if I’ll wait for them to speak up.

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  7. Great read, thank you.

    One of our neighbors is married to a man from the Fero Islands. His accent sounds German to my untrained ear. Anyway, we live in a little rural southern town, not many interesting accents. He came over to borrow a ladder once. The nanny was keeping the kids. He failed to introduce himself, simply said, “Is you husband home? I’m locked out and need to borrow his ladder so that I can break in.” She called the police. We have since become friends and have laughed about it.

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  8. Wow. That actually made me cry. For almost four years we lived with the greatest set of neighbors in the world, and we recently moved one block away so we still see them. Here, we no NOBODY. It’s a tiny grouping of people and nobody knows anyone else. Great post.

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    1. Times really have changed. Growing up, I knew everyone that lived on our road. Once I moved out on my own, I never had the nerve to introduce myself except to the guy who lived in the upstairs of the duplex we were renting.

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  9. We sort of know our neighbors. We wave hello, and if their dogs get out, we chase them down and bring them back. But with all the military families here, nobody lives on our street for very long. Good story. I don’t think that you did anything to be ashamed of, however.

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  10. Aw that was sad. You know hun you should have went to them and stuff….But I guess there is no pont reminding you all of that…. I guess you learned your lesson. You know sometimes life teaches us lessons we don’t want to learn but which are helpful for us.
    That was an example of one of the draw backs of the modern lives you know when neighbors don’t know each other. But you called the police because you cared about humanity. My Love to you 🙂 xx

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    1. I appreciate your honesty. I know several other people have told me I did the right thing, but I agree with you: I should have both called and knocked on their door. Had there been a fire, they could have been caught in the smoke by the time the fire trucks arrived.

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      1. Thank you Love for understanding my thoughts.They were just a thought of a girl who sits here in front of computer and reads your story. I know real situation can be different, you understand that better than me 🙂 Love you xx

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  11. We live in a rural area and we only know the neighbors who live across the street, but only because of Hurricane Sandy. We’d see them once a year when we’d sit across the street from each other at our town’s Memorial Day parade, but when Sandy happened, they offered to lend us their generator, we offered names of subcontractors. We finally sat and talked. They’ve lived in this town for 30 years. We’ve lived here 14. Turns out they’re looking to move. We really don’t know too many of our neighbors and I’m ashamed that I still haven’t gone next door to introduce myself to our new neighbors. Growing up, we knew everyone in our neighborhood; who lived in each house, and we always felt safe knocking on their doors. Things have really changed. Know that you are a good neighbor for making sure the family was okay.

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  12. I am making a concerted effort to get to know my neighbors this time around, it’s working out better. And just as a funny aside: I once slept through a fire that burned down an entire condo building in my complex that was directly across from my building. I didn’t know until I woke up the next morning and the numerous fire trucks were still there, along with the half of the neighborhood.

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      1. I know, I have NO idea how I slept through it and apparently, the neighbors wanted me dead because NO ONE knocked on my door!! Clue: this is when I should have gotten to know my neighbors. ha.

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  13. love your honesty- as always. i’m glad it wasn’t anything more and i’m sorry you had to feel embarrassed. I totally get it though. I lived in condo and the guy in the unit next to me died. he was a bit of a hermit, but even if he hadn’t been, I don’t think I would’ve ever known his name. :/

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    1. On the one hand, it stinks feeling disconnected. On the other, now I’ve seen too many episodes of “Nightmare Next Door,” so I’m afraid to introduce myself to potential psychopaths. It’s not logical, but the fear is still there.

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  14. When we were living in the city we didn’t know any of our neighbors either. Now that we own a house, we have taken the time to get to know the people who live on our street, and there is something really rewarding about creating that kind of community for yourselves.

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  15. Wow. That really affected me. My eyes got a little teary at your revelation. I can completely understand knowing you should help but feeling unsure. That’s part of life I guess. Learning and growing from life’s happenings.

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  16. I grew up not knowing our neighbors, and the trend continued in my adult life until we moved to this neighborhood, so I understand how this feels…

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  17. I think you made the right decision. In the time it would have taken you to get to their home, knock, wait for them to respond and then make the decision to place that call….they could have been killed by smoke inhalation or the fire by then. I have lived in my home for twelve years. My dad and my daughter died at home. A hearse arrived twice – once at night and once midday. Not a single enquiry of word of sympathy from the neighbours. We all have domestic workers and they talk amongst themselves. We always know what’s happening in the street! People don’t care anymore, and they don’t have time!

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